Buddhism, Forgiveness and Punishment

June 22nd, 2009

Someone in an online community asked:

A hypothetical question for all of you:

You’re the Buddhist ruler of an Autocracy. Laws need to be made regarding civil order. Laws are upheld with the threat of punishment.

In your society, is nobody ever to be punished? Does being a Buddhist mean never reprimanding anyone?

Certainly not “never reprimanding.”  I mean, active forgiveness–telling someone that they are forgiven–involves some level of reprimanding, of calling the wrong action wrong.  “You hurt me, but I forgive you.”  It’s not the same as “Don’t worry about it, you never did anything wrong.”

In an ideal Buddhist state, there would be a lot less baggage to the concept of punishment.  Sometimes I think of punishment and I remember when I used to work at a video rental store.  I’d say as nicely as possible, “I see in your record that you kept your last movie an extra day.  There’s a one-dollar charge for that.”  Some people would feel affronted by that, reading into that one-dollar charge the accusation: “You failed to return your video on time.  You’re a bad person, and you’re being punished for it.”  I never found a way to get some people to accept that there’s nothing wrong with keeping a rental another day and paying for it.

I also think we bring baggage to the legal system, like we want an authority figure to say, “You’re right and he’s wrong.”  A Buddhist answer often requires two sides to reach an understanding, that neither side is inherently right or wrong.

So a Buddhist justice system would be a lot more focused on restitution and rehabilitation.  Recognizing that something wrong has happened in the past, we look for ways to encourage more right actions in the future.

Forgiveness, to me, means that I don’t think anyone’s a bad person.  If I caught you stealing money out of my wallet, I’d forgive you, but that doesn’t mean you can keep the money.  If you stole my car and wrecked it, I’d forgive you, but I’d ask you to help me get my car fixed.

2 Responses to “Buddhism, Forgiveness and Punishment”

  1. Kuz says:

    In Buddhism, is there also a focus on not repeating the behavior in the future? “You kept your movie late. There is a one dollar charge for that. What can you do differently next time?” In Christianity that’s the big repentance thing – turning away from the harmful behavior.

  2. admin says:

    Yes, definitely. In a broader social sense, it would fall under the category of “restitution and rehabilitation,” but in a personal sense, any use of guilt should lead to improvement. Though it would probably be a bit condescending to apply it with a video late fee, I think when we’re connecting with people, we should usually keep open the option of a “next time” so that people can learn from their own faults.

    I have a friend who used to be very bad at keeping appointments. I had tried to meet her for lunch, but then she rescheduled, then she stood me up, then she rescheduled, then she asked again if she could reschedule–and I said no, if you want to meet with me you should keep your promise and meet with me. She later told me that she was grateful for my honesty, that it took a little guilt trip to get her to amend her own behavior. A little guilt can do that, but “punishment” doesn’t–like if I’d stood her up to show her how it feels, she wouldn’t feel better about acting better in the future.

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